Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Church in the Public Square

This is a post that admittedly I have been hesitant in writing.  The Lord knows that a great deal has been spoken and written about this issue over the past few weeks in the United States.  The issue came to a head with the announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of the United States that it would be enforcing the provision of contraception (and other medical procedures) as a part of the Affordable Health Care Act which was a hallmark of the present administration in Washington.  This announcement, made on January 20, caused a fire storm of reaction, particularly from the Catholic Church and its leaders because the mandates would require institutions funded and operated by the Church to provide contraceptive services to their employees, including sterilization and certain drugs considered to be those that can cause an abortion.

This announcement caused a response from Catholic leaders, as well as persons of good faith in other religions, because it was felt that this was a violation of religious liberty guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  It would require that church operated institutions, such as hospitals and charitable organizations, to provide access to contraception (and the other items mentioned above) which would violate the basic beliefs of the religious institutions.  Even many who disagree with the Church’s position on artificial birth control were in harmony with the call for a relaxation of these mandates in the name of religious liberty.

In an editorial in its February 13 issue, the editors of America, a weekly Catholic magazine, stated that this decision by HHS represented “a misunderstanding of the Catholic mission in the United States.”  It went on to state that “…serving the broader community through hospitals, clinics, service agencies and institutions of higher learning is not an extraneous activity for the Catholic Church.  It is a civic manifestation of the church’s deep beliefs in human dignity, solidarity with the suffering and forgotten, the importance of learning and commitment to the common good.”

I believe that the Obama administration made a grave miscalculation if they felt that simply by mandating these policies be carried out by such church institutions, those institutions would in turn just “roll over and play dead.”  It was not to be.  Consequently, the President attempted to submit a “modification” by stating that the institutions would not be required to pay for such medical procedures or drugs but private insurers would do so.  At first, this seemed to be an attempt on the part of the administration to quell the uproar that followed the original announcement.

At first, the United States bishops seemed to feel that this was a first step in overcoming the chasm that had erupted.  On further study of the “accommodation,” they found certain things that they felt were unacceptable.  The chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, pointed out three things that were troublesome to the bishops.  (Cardinal Dolan, back in the fall in a private meeting with the President had been assured by him that “he would do nothing to impede the good work of the Church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty.”  It was, therefore, a shock to him when the announcement of these provisions was made on January 20.)

The three items, in the Cardinal’s words are:

…(T)here was not even a nod to the deepest concerns about trespassing on religious freedom, or of modifying the HHS’ attempt to define the how and who of our ministry…

…(S)ince a big part of our ministries are “self-insured,” how is this going to help us?  We still have to pay!  And what about individual believers being coerced to pay?

…(T)here was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon renowned Catholic charitable agencies, both national and international, and their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization or contraception.

So, the confrontation between the government and private religious institutions still goes on.  What will happen next?  In a subsequent editorial in America magazine (one, incidentally, criticized by Cardinal Dolan), the editors called for a continued dialogue in a “conciliatory style that keeps Catholics united and cools the national distemper…”   This is a laudable statement, although I would have to say that in my view neither of the principal spokespersons in this debate, Cardinal Dolan or President Obama, has engaged in the kind of divisive and damaging rhetoric that has become too much a part of this year’s presidential campaign.

The America editorial goes on to quote Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est as saying:  …(T)he Church does not seek to “impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to the faith.”  This certainly reflects the Church’s teaching on religious liberty – no matter what religion someone is a part of.  Nevertheless it does seem to me that the government in this instance has seen fit to impose its beliefs regarding health care on others without consideration of the “other’s” religious beliefs.

Where will this go from here?  Some have called for the Church to practice “civil disobedience” and simply ignore the government’s rulings.  Others have called for the shut-down of all Catholic institutions that would be affected by these policies.  Before anyone should rush to make that a reality, let us consider just what the effect would be if Catholic institutions closed their doors because of these mandates.

To quote from a piece written by Ed Morrissey (on his Hot Air site) entitled What If the Bishops Aren’t Bluffing:

The Carholic Church has perhaps the most extensive private health-care delivery system in the nation.  It operates 12.6 percent of hospitals in the U.S…accounting for 15.6 percent of all admissions….Catholic hospitals handle more than their share of Medicare (16.6 percent) and Medicaid (13.65 percent) discharges, meaning that more than one in six seniors and disabled patients get attention from these hospitals, and more than one in every eight low-income patients as well.  Almost a third (32 percent) of these hospitals are located in rural areas, where patients usually have few other options for care….

Imagine the impact if these hospitals shut down, discounting the other 400-plus health centers and 1,500 specialized homes that the Catholic Church operates as part of its mission that would also disappear….(T)he current system…would have to absorb almost $100 billion in costs in each year to treat them.  Over 120,000 beds would disappear from an already-stressed system.

I don’t believe the leaders of my Church would go so far as to close down such a vital part of the nation’s health care system.  While we came together in solidarity behind the bishops when these restrictions were first announced, may we not come together in prayer to ask God to assist all of those involved in this debate to find a way to protect religious freedom and still maintain a viable and needed health care system.

Not everyone agrees with the Catholic position on contraception, and there are a good number of Catholics who admittedly use birth control.  In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the now famous encyclical on this matter entitled Humanae Vitae.  It admittedly was not well received and has been the source of much discussion and critique since it was issued.  There are some statements made in that encyclical, however, that should be looked at again in light of our present discussion.  To counter those who say that the Church just wants people to have more and more children, the pope said this:

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral principles, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

One of the issues raised by the mandates announced by HHS is that in addition to artificial birth control means, the practice of sterilization and the prescription of drugs that can bring about an abortion are also included.  These latter items certainly fly in the face of the Church’s long-standing belief in the sanctity of human life from the beginning of conception.  The pope’s words on this are:

We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.  Equally to be condemned…is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.

Perhaps the final statement I would cite from Humanae Vitae seems to resonate with today’s situation.  The Holy Father said this:

…Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?  Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.  It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

Is this what we are seeing now?  I hope that this is not the case.  It should be stated that the Catholic bishops do not have a monopoly on morality.  Many voices in other religions may speak out regarding their own beliefs in this matter.  Yet, the Catholic bishops do have a powerful moral voice that needs to be heard.  I would hope that a meeting between the President and the Chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops (such as was held this past fall) could occur again in hopes of resolving this issue while preserving the Church’s important role in community life.  This would be my prayer and I hope it is yours also.